Free speech fights

Free speech fights

Free speech fights is the term used to describe a number of conflicts in the early twentieth century, particularly those relating to the efforts of the Industrial Workers of the World (the "IWW", or "Wobblies") to organize workers and publicly speak about labor issues. Wobblies, Single Taxers, and other radicals of the time were actively engaged in organizing workers and others, and their efforts were often met with violent repression by local government and business authorities. The most notorious of these conflicts was the "San Diego Free Speech Fight", [Brisseden, p.283, and Whitten, p.6.] which brought the IWW to the greater notice of the American public and was notable for the intensity of violence by anti-labor vigilantes directed at IWW; this violence included the kidnapping and tarring and feathering of Ben Reitman, a physician and Emma Goldman's lover.

More generally, the term free speech fight may also be applied to any incident in which a group is involved in a conflict over its speech. For instance, the Free Speech Movement, which began with a conflict on the Berkeley Campus in California in the 1960s, may be termed a "free speech fight".

"Free speech fights" and the IWW

The IWW engaged in free speech fights during the period from approximately 1907 to 1916. The "Wobblies", as the IWW members were called, relied upon free speech, which in the United States was guaranteed by the First Amendment, to enable them to communicate the concept of One Big Union to other workers. In communities where the authorities saw their interests in avoiding the development of unions, the practice of soapboxing was frequently restricted by ordinance or by police harassment. The IWW employed the tactics of flooding the area of a free speech fight with "footloose rebels" who would challenge the authorities by flouting the ordinance, intentionally getting arrested in great numbers. With the jails full and a seemingly endless stream of union activists arriving by boxcar and highway, the local communities frequently rescinded their prohibitions on free speech, or came to some other accommodation.

History of the IWW's free speech fights

In "A History of American Labor", Joseph G. Rayback has written,

[The Industrial Workers of the World] made its first impression upon the nation through its involvement in the "free speech" fight begun in Spokane, Washington, employment center for the casual labor elements of the Pacific Northwest. The fight developed late in 1908 when the I.W.W. launched an extensive speaking campaign with the slogan "Don't Buy Jobs" in the streets around the Spokane employment agencies which had become skilled in the art of swindling men who applied for jobs.Rayback, p. 244.

The "job sharks" were so closely tied to the crew boss on many job sites that there would be "one gang coming, one gang working and one gang going." The faster the turnover, the greater the fees that could be generated. From time to time the men would ignore the IWW and seek revenge after an employment shark took someone's last dollar for a job that didn't exist. The "Spokesman-Review" of January 18, 1909 reported,Thompson and Murfin, p. 47.

Hurling rocks and chunks of ice through the windows of the Red Cross Employment Agency, 224 Stevens St., several members of a noisy mob of between 2,000 and 3,000 idle men were about to attempt to wreck the place about 6 o'clock last evening, when James H. Walsh, organizer of the IWW, mounted a chair and pacified the multitude. In the opinion of the police had it not been for the intervention of Walsh, a riot would surely have followed, as the rabble was worked up to such a pitch that its members would have readily attempted violence. Walsh discouraged violence and summoned all members of the IWW to their hall at the rear of 312 Front Ave. The police dispersed the rest... At the hall Walsh warned the crowd against an outbreak. "There were a lot of hired Pinkertons in that crowd," he said. "All they wanted you fellows to do was to sart something and then they would have an excuse for shooting you down or smashing your heads in... You can gain nothing by resorting to mob rule."Thompson and Murfin, pp. 47-48.

For the rest of the summer, IWW street meetings brought more and more working stiffs into the IWW.Thompson and Murfin, p. 48.

The agencies promptly countered by pressuring the city council to pass an ordinance forbidding street speaking. The I.W.W. obeyed the regulation for nearly a year, until Spokane religious groups, which habitually used the streets, secured a new regulation exempting them from the street-speaking ordinance. Angered by the discrimination on behalf of "the Christers," the Spokane I.W.W. renewed its campaign.

The newspaper of the IWW, the "Industrial Worker", published the following on October 28: "Wanted—Men to Fill the Jails of Spokane." Then the IWW sent out a notice to all locations, "Nov. 2, FREE SPEECH DAY—IWW locals will be notified by wire how many men to send if any... Meetings will be orderly and no irregularities of any kind will be tolerated."

In one day 150 men were arrested and crowded into jails that could hardly accommodate them. Reinforcements promptly arrived from the surrounding territory.

The Spokane City Council arranged for rock-pile work for the prisoners.

At the end of twenty days four hundred men had been jailed.

Overflowing prisoners were lodged in the Franklin School, and the War Department made Fort Wright available for more. Eight editors in succession got out a copy of the "Industrial Worker", and then took their turn soapboxing, and went to jail. The IWW's "rebel girl," Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, who was fresh out of high school, delayed her arrest by chaining herself to a lamppost. She later charged that the police were using the women's section of the jail as a brothel, with police soliciting customers. When that story was printed in the "Industrial Worker" on December 10, the police attempted to destroy all copies. Public sympathy began to favor the strikers. When the prison guards would march the overflowing prisoners through the streets to bathing facilities, crowds would shower the men with apples, oranges, and Bull Durham.Thompson and Murfin, p. 49.

The effort brought results: the W.F.M. declared a boycott of all goods coming from Spokane, and taxpayers began to protest against the cost of feeding, housing, and policing the prisoners. When Vincent St. John publicly appealed to all Wobblies to come to Spokane to renew the struggle, city officials capitulated.
The victory for the free speech fight came on March 4. The licenses of 19 of the employment agencies were revoked.

The I.W.W. was granted freedom of assembly, freedom of the press, and the right to distribute its literature.

In "Labor's Untold Story", Boyer and Morais observed,

The courts became so clogged they could handle little else but free speech cases. The fight for free speech became largely a question of endurance between the lungs and heads of the Wobblies and the stamina of the police. In Missoula and Spokane as in most of the other towns where free speech fights were waged, any citizen could address any assemblage on any street on any subject at any time by the end of 1912.Boyer and Morais, p.174.

Other free speech fights of the IWW

The IWW followed with other free speech fights in Kansas City, Missouri; in Aberdeen, Washington; and in Fresno, California. In San Diego, California, there was a particularly brutal free speech fight between the IWW and its allies, and large groups of vigilantes supported by the authorities. Tar and feathers, beatings, clubbings, and forceable deportations were used in addition to incarceration. The San Diego free speech fight was unique in that the IWW did not have a specific organizing campaign at stake. The IWW won all of these free speech fights.

Other locations of free speech fights by the IWW included Duluth, Minnesota; New Castle, and New Bedford.

In early 1913, IWW members in Denver, Colorado fought a lengthy free speech fight. Denver authorities had refused to allow the Wobblies to speak on street corners, so union members filled the jails for months. The union won the right to speak to workers, and within a year had formed two Denver branches.Brundage, pp.161-62.

The IWW's provocative free speech message

The IWW message was particularly unpopular with the business community. IWW members believed that the capitalist system was corrupt, could not be reformed, and could only be resisted until a better society could be built for all working people. James Walsh's streetcorner speeches were therefore frequently disrupted, particularly by the local Volunteers of America and Salvation Army Bands.

Walsh recruited volunteers to put together a small band, equipped with "a big booming bass drum," in order to get the IWW's message to listeners. The group practiced patriotic and religious tunes of the period, but the Wobblies wrote new words to the songs.Blecha, 2006.

"To grab the crowd’s attention," the IWW band often "hid in a doorway while one member dressed in a bowler hat and carrying a briefcase and umbrella, yelled to the crowd, ‘Help! I’ve been robbed!’ The crowd rushed over only to hear, ‘I've been robbed by the capitalist system! Fellow workers ...’ He then launched into a short speech, and the makeshift band stepped out of the doorway and played their songs."Blecha, 2006, citing Linda Allen, "Washington Songs and Lore" (Spokane: Melior Publications 1988), p. 18.


* Peter Blecha, [ "Fanning the Flames: Northwest Labor Song Traditions"] , February 05, 2006, Retrieved May 14, 2007.
* Richard O. Boyer and Herbert M. Morais, "Labor's Untold Story" (1974).
* Paul F. Brisseden, "The I.W.W.: A Study of American Syndicalism" (New York, 1919)
* David Brundage, "The Making of Western Labor Radicalism: Denver's Organized Workers, 1878-1905" (1994).
* Melvyn Dubofsky, "We Shall Be All: A History of the Industrial Workers of the World" (1969)
* Joseph G. Rayback, "A History of American Labor" (1966).
* Fred W. Thompson and Patrick Murfin, "The I.W.W.: Its First Seventy Years, 1905-1975" (1976).
* Woodrow C. Whitten, "Criminal Syndicalism and the Law in California, 1919-1927" (Philadelphia, 1969).


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